Brett Hoffman

Out of all of the events that fans witness during a rodeo performance, which one is the hardest on a rider’s body while in the process of making a solid ride?

Most people probably would say bull riding because it's the sport's most dangerous event. Riders typically get bucked off more in bull riding than in bareback riding or saddle bronc riding. But rodeo experts say bareback riding.

Tandy Freeman, the medical director of the Justin Sportsmedicine Program that offers medical assistance to competitors at rodeos across North America, cited experiences at the traditional December National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas as an example. During the NFR, the top 15 competitors in each standard rodeo event ride for 10 consecutive daily performances at the Thomas & Mack Center where bareback riders noticeably ask for more medical treatment.

“If you walk into the Justin Sports medicine training room during the NFR about Round 5 or 6, we may have about 10 or 12 of the bareback riders getting treated,” Freeman said. “Typically, before the NFR is over, it will be between 12 and 15 of them who have had to make a trip to the training room. Whereas the bull riders, it probably is half that number. The majority of the bareback riders are in there and that’s not true of any other event.”

Freeman, who is from Dallas, said bareback riding is very hard on the body.

“Bareback riding, with the equipment that they use today, they’re basically putting themselves in a position where from their hand, all the way up to their neck, and then all the way down their spine and even above the neck, into their head, they’re basically putting themselves through G-forces that you don’t see to the same degree in the other events and it occurs every time that they got on,” he said.

Dave Appleton, the 1988 world all-around champion from Fort Worth who competed in bareback riding and saddle bronc riding, said bareback riding is the toughest of the three bucking stocks events on a cowboy during the ride.

“In bareback riding, you are holding on to what looks like a suitcase handle,” he said. “It’s tied to 1,200 pounds and its going in six different directions and all of the force is coming up through that handle into the shoulder, the elbow, the wrist and every other part of your body.”

Appleton said saddle bronc riding is easier on a rider than bareback riding because, “the power of the horse is absorbed by the saddle and the style of how you ride. You are lifting on a buck rein. You are going to take a little bit of a jerk if you get out of shape, but never anywhere near what you what you take in the bareback riding.”

Bull riding is billed as rodeo’s most dangerous event because riders can be fatally hit by a bull or stomped once they’re on the ground after an attempted or qualified ride. Bulls can weigh between 1,500 and 2,000 pounds and they can strike a rider so hard that even a protective vest is not enough to prevent a serious internal injury or death.

That was the case on Jan. 15, 2019, during a Professional Bull Riders show at the National Western Stock Show in Denver. Former PBR World Finals qualifier Mason Lowe, 25, of Exeter, Mo., was killed by a bull that he had attempted to ride. He was bucked off of his bull, which suddenly stepped on his chest. He was transported to Denver Health Medical Centre where he died. According to reports, Lowe was wearing a protective vest, which could not absorb the blow. Lowe suffered a “massive chest injury that caused damage to his heart,” PBR officials said.

Another example is the 1989 bull riding accident that caused the death of 1987 world champion Lane Frost at the Cheyenne Frontier Days in Wyoming. Frost, 25, was hit by the horn of a bull that he had just ridden for prize money. Frost died from internal injuries. He was not wearing a protective vest. In those days, bull riders, for the most part, were not into wearing much protective gear. But shortly after Frost’s death, more and more bull riders began wearing protective vests and more of them are wearing helmets these days.

Timed event competitors by far have it easier. One example is roping superstar Trevor Brazile, an Amarillo area native who lives in Decatur. At 42, he was the eldest to compete at the 2018 National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas in tie-down roping. He secured a record 14th PRCA world all-around title when he won the 10th and final round of tie-down roping with a blistering time of 7.2 seconds on Dec. 15, 2018.

On Nov. 23, 2019, at age 43, Brazile clinched the 2019 PRCA world steer roping title at the PRCA’s Clem McSpadden National Finals Steer Roping in Mulvane, Kan. He also won the event title (the average), which meant he turned in the fastest aggregate time on 10 runs (131.0 seconds).

Brazile said the availability of sports medicine for rodeo competitors has made a big difference. The Justin Sportsmedicine Program was founded in 1981.

“When you have the ability to go get an MRI and make an educated decision about taking time off, whether I take three weeks off and help the injury heal verses keeping going another month, but I have to stop and have surgery, that’s huge to be able to have the foresight of that at your disposal,” Brazile said.

Brazile also competes in team roping, an event that’s typically are less stressful. Team ropers have longevity because they do not have to dismount from their horses and down an animal unlike tie-down ropers, steer ropers or steer wrestlers (who have a tendency to sustain knee injuries).

Barrel racers can have longer careers. At 68, barrel racer Mary Burger became the oldest National Finals Rodeo qualifier and the oldest rider to clinch a world title on the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association/Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association circuit in 2016.

Barrel racers’ big concern mostly is leg and shin injuries from hitting barrels. They also can seriously become injured when a horse falls in the arena.

Matt Brockman, the Fort Worth Stock Show Rodeo’s spokesperson, said competitors have more longevity overall because of better sports medicine and paying more attention to physical fitness.

“Thank goodness our rough stock riders and timed event guys are in great physical shape. They have to be because of the sheer power of these animals that we’re running under these cowboys these days is just amazing. We often like to say that rodeo is the original extreme sport, but it’s more extreme today than it was 40 years ago.”

PRCA update

On the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association circuit, Jeff Askey, who is from the Athens area, clinched the bull riding average title at the Jan. 2-4 Texas Circuit Finals in Waco with a two-ride score of 171.5. Askey will advance to the April 3-4 RAM National Circuit Finals Rodeo in Kissimmee, Fla., in the Orlando area.

Askey also clinched the Texas Circuit’s bull riding 2019 annual earnings title.

John Douch of Huntsville clinched the tie-down roping title at the Texas Circuit Finals with a three-run time of 24.9 seconds. He also will advance to the April National Circuit Finals Rodeo in Kissimmee.

The PRCA Texas Circuit is a geographic region in North America that determines champions each year. The average winner at the Waco championships and the 2019 annual earnings champions advanced to the April Kissimmee championships.

According rodeo secretary Mikey Duggan and, the other single event average winners at the $202,096 Texas Circuit Finals were steer wrestler Matt Reeves; bareback rider Jake Brown (258.5 points on three head); team ropers Colby Lovell/Ross Ashford (16.3 seconds on three head); saddle bronc rider Brody Cress (263 points on three head); barrel racer Jill Wilson (48.16 seconds on three runs); and steer roper Trevor Brazile (36.1 seconds on three head).

The other 2019 Texas Circuit annual earnings single event champions were steer wrestler Matt Reeves; bareback rider Jake Brown; team roping header Luke Brown; team roping heeler Rosh Ashford; saddle bronc rider Jacobs Crawley; tie-down roper Marty Yates; barrel racer Jimmie Smith; and steer roper Trevor Brazile.

Brazile advanced to the April 24-26 National Circuit Finals Steer Roping in Torrington, Wyo.

PBR update

On the Professional Bull Riders circuit, Joao Ricardo Vieira, a Brazilian who lives in Decatur, clinched the title at last weekend’s tour stop at New York’s Madison Square Garden and earned $109,000. Vieira turned in scores of 89.25, 84.75, 85.75 and 87.25 (in the final round).

Kaique Pacheco, another Brazilian from Decatur who clinched the 2018 PBR world title, finished second and pocketed $21,350. Jess Lockwood, the 2017 and 2019 PBR world champion, came in third and collected $23,850.

The Jan. 3-5 New York show was the first 2020 tour stop on the Unleash The Beast, the PBR’s top tier tour.

World class PBR riders will be in Texas on Feb. 15-16 to compete in the association’s Global Cup, an international team competition at AT&T Stadium in Arlington.

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